He Should Know | Book Review | Chicago Reader

He Should Know 

Bosnian novelist Aleksander Hemon shares his insight on nationalism and what it might really mean for the States to stand united.

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"There's a Bosnian saying: If you plant pumpkins with the devil, they will be smashed against your head," says Aleksandar Hemon, expressing his doubts about a new partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, the Defense Department, and Boeing aimed at recording the experiences of American soldiers in Iraq. "I have not stopped being suspicious of any project that is blessed by Paul Wolfowitz or any state agency."

Hemon's past has left him deeply distrustful of the nationalist impulse--something he sees being played out with gusto in the Bush administration's response to 9/11. "It's amazing for a writer, someone who deals with fictions and constructing stories, to witness to what extent whatever they say entirely consists of fantasies, projected fantasies and acted-out fantasies," he says. "The first thing that Bush said on 9/11 was 'Freedom itself was attacked.' It looked like tens of thousands of people dying, and his first reaction is absolute vacuous abstraction. It was clear to me in this moment, if they can suspend the reality of death and life of those people, there's nothing that stops them from suspending it for millions of people."

Born in Sarajevo, Hemon came to the U.S. as a visiting writer in 1992, speaking what he describes as "excellent tourist" but "inadequate immigrant" English. On the day he was to go home war broke out. He settled in Chicago, holding down a series of low-paying jobs, and in 1995 got his MA in literature from Northwestern. He's published two works of fiction, The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man, and his stories have appeared in the New Yorker and Granta, among other publications. Awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship this fall, Hemon also writes a twice-monthly column for the Bosnian magazine Dani and contributes to Slate. He lives in Uptown with his wife, Lisa Stodder.

MT: In your columns you've expressed concerns about our involvement in Iraq. You've been especially critical of President George Bush's administration and what you've characterized as its dishonest arguments for getting us there. Do you have any sense of similarity to what you observed in Bosnia?

AH: Absolutely. One of the ways to diagnose this is "American nationalism is on the march"--a nationalism in all its pathology, all these years of training citizens in terms of seemingly benign nationalism: pledging the allegiance, tearing up in front of the flag, worshipping the uniform, repeating the best stories about founding fathers and George Washington never telling a lie, singing the anthem before any goddamn sports event.

I lived in socialism, in a totalitarian state. We never sang the fucking anthem before a soccer game, and we never had to pledge allegiance to the leader. Now it all kicks in, right? We have an attack. We have to stand united against the enemy, who's everywhere.

There's plenty of gray zones, but when there's a war on you either shut up or you're shooting. The primary goal of the Serbian genocide in Bosnia, for instance, was to erase a population or ethnically cleanse it. There would be no fence-sitting Serbs. This was the ultimate goal. It creates identities. United we stand.

This whole logic of nationalism unites the nation, but it also means weeding out all those who are disloyal. This catastrophic notion that if you criticize your president and the army you're helping the enemy implies, at the very least, democracy is something worth protecting only when there is no war. And there's always war. When is this going to stop if you can't criticize it? So there's us and there's them, and you have to choose your side. In the meantime everybody gets excited over this and thinks in terms of abstractions, and the nation's united and it's one big fantasy world.

MT: But everybody's buying into that. Even Barack Obama--"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America. There's the United States of America." You don't buy that rhetoric either?

AH: No. I think Osama bin Laden, whatever he represents, is my enemy. Too bad they're not fighting him. But I also think that Bush and the class and forces he represents are my enemy. They want to undo the life that I have. They're attacking what I believe in. They are undermining everything that constitutes my life. They are fighting against the world as I would like it to be. It's that simple, really, and I'm not going to unite with them at any fucking point. I might be a bad American, which is very possible since I'm a foreigner anyway.

MT: What is the role of journalism in this?

AH: It's collaboration. The Chicago Tribune endorsed Bush, for instance. That same Tribune published fact upon fact about the Bush regime.

I worked as a journalist before the war in Bosnia, and even though I could not comprehend what was going to happen, we had facts. I cannot even imagine a situation in which we would cover these stories and then endorse Serbian nationalism. It's just fantastic to me. This is worse than propaganda. They are acting out of sheer self-interest. Damn the catastrophe that comes out of it. To think that they represent the Americans, let alone the people in Chicago, is just fantastic.

MT: But it's also divorced from what you and I learned as journalists, which is to have a measure of independence. You probably agree with me that objectivity is a false construct, but fairness isn't--to bring fairness, to listen, to allow your mind to be changed, to know the facts, to understand what the story behind the story is.

AH: I read the Tribune, and if their editorials are judgments of reality then they've completely failed us. It completely disqualifies whatever facts they have presented journalistically. They don't give a flying fuck--I mean, they never have, really--about Chicago and people who are vastly Democratic. It's a suburban paper.

MT: We've talked before about the difference between an editorial writer and a reporter who's reporting just the facts, ma'am, please. I would guess that you're having as much trouble with what's being done by reporters, that you see a bias there as well, and not only in the Tribune but probably in other publications and other broadcast outlets.

AH: It is more widespread. Never mind Fox Channel. I remember the New York Times editorial that said, "This is the last chance to criticize our president because we're going to war tomorrow," because they didn't want to criticize while we're blowing up Iraq. This is unconscionable, to believe in this sort of propagandistic aspect. In fact, many more Americans than they would like to think now actually kind of liked the idea of American greatness and kicking ass in the world and having the biggest dick on earth.

Abu Ghraib is by far, to my mind, the biggest scandal, not only of this administration but easily since Watergate--and possibly bigger than Watergate. It vanished. This country opened and ran a concentration camp with the full knowledge of someone as high as Donald Rumsfeld, probably the president. Speaking of similarities: Muslims in concentration camps, Bosnia '93, thank you very much.

Seymour Hersh wrote, besides Abu Ghraib, about a real possibility there are secret detention camps that nobody knows about where people vanish and disappear. Not an issue. That is catastrophic.

MT: Why is it not an issue?

AH: Nationalism. Because we have to choose sides. We have to purify our souls, and that's war.

MT: Couldn't there be some other factors too? Maybe it's because journalists aren't any better or worse than anybody else. They are society. Maybe you'd call it the herd mentality. Does that contribute?

AH: That's how nationalism operates. You get excited just like everybody else and you get carried along and then, consciously or unconsciously, you know, "Well, I'm going to benefit from this because at the end of it all someone's going to decide who's a good American, who's a bad American, and I'd rather be good than bad." That's herd mentality, but it's worse. Another consequence of the seemingly benign nationalist brainwashing is this belief that we are good people, even when we have concentration camps, even in Vietnam, when our boys massacre civilians. It's just a glitch in the system of good intentions. We're not capable of this.

MT: But what brands this situation as particularly American?

AH: Two things: one is the fantasy of greatness, which is persistent in American ideology--

MT: Which also, I'm thinking, is linked to the post-World War II identity of America.

AH: Yes, the cold war identity of America. They won World War II and then they took down the Soviet Union.

MT: Won World War II. Came in with the Marshall Plan. Rebuilt Europe. Took down the Soviet Union. It's alternating between benevolent savior and--

AH: That's always a discourse of colonialism. You know the 19th-century British colonialism and its three Cs: commerce, Christianity, civilization. There's commerce--free market, and civilization--democracy. You just change the words, right? Democracy and free market, and Christianity is in the background. They're not going to convert Iraqis yet, but there are missionaries creeping all over the fucking place. So it's always benevolence. It's never just kick ass.

MT: You said there were two things.

AH: Unlike Bosnia and such places where there was no real tradition of democracy, there is a tradition of democracy here. Milosevic, in the former Yugoslavia, took over the mechanisms of the state from the previous regime and then diverted them toward his ends. He already had the tools of oppression--I'm talking about the army, the judiciary system, the police, and all this, so the public didn't really matter.

People in America didn't have to be whipped into this. As of now, you and I are not getting arrested. You're going to publish this. Despite Bush's best wishes, this is a fucking democracy.

MT: But, as you pointed out earlier, the makings are there--

AH: Strangely, this is necessary, because this is democracy. You have to train kids here because they can't put them away. They have to train them so by the time they can actually do something they are already brainwashed.

Nationalism works differently than totalitarianism. In democracy they have to manipulate the population differently.

MT: What role does a fiction writer play in this world?

AH: A writer of fiction plays a minimal role, yet a necessary one. In history with a capital H they talk about big things--about great men, great sweeps changing the world. Literature talks about each life, every life, one life at a time, and every life is worth a book. These stories are necessary, because in the ideological world of Bush or Stalin or Milosevic individual lives are erased daily. I mean literally. People die and they're never remembered. History is not going to tell our story. Literature has to.

MT: Except I've also heard you say that the difference between history and literature is the difference between--my words now--reconstructive truth and truth. We tend to rewrite histories all the time. I remember you making a pretty passionate argument that literature could offer a truer version, though of course it's edited and rewritten too.

AH: What really matters in history? How it affects our lives--past history, present history, and future history. Literature tells the story of those lives and it is edited, but it's not edited to convey the truth of events.

It's not that literature automatically counters history. It is that it could. If you want to know how the Borodino battle really took place you don't read Tolstoy. You read studies that have historical documents. But if you want to try to imagine how people live and die in those battles you read Tolstoy. That's what really matters about those battles.

MT: Good journalism, not unlike literature, has the ability to tell these individual stories that preserve history, that create a different history, that give voice to people who wouldn't have a voice in official histories. So why it is different from literature?

AH: You should not think of literature in terms of fiction. It would include fiction and poetry and so-called nonfiction. Probably it's better defined by its goal. If it's after human experience and human life as contained in words, then it's literature. In some ways the best journalism is not very much distinguishable from literature.

MT: When you write your Dani column, what are your subjects?

AH: Actually I cover everything. These days a lot of American politics. It's a ranty passionate approach rather than just facts. I write the column as a writer more than as a journalist.

MT: What are you hoping to achieve?

AH: To engage my readers into some sort of public discussion. At a certain level this is what both literature and journalism do. It's just the modes of the exchange are different.

MT: Do you, when you're writing these columns, try to explain American culture?

AH: It's always a specific issue that prompts me to write something. Americans tend to generalize about other parts of the world, as many people around the world like to generalize about other parts of the world. It's an easy way to pretend to be understanding something that it's not so easy to understand. So I have written columns in which I try to point out the fact that this is a much more complicated country than Bush and prejudiced people would have it, that Bush doesn't represent it. There are so many other political forces.

MT: How would you describe Dani's point of view?

AH: In Europe you're not objective, but you try to be fair, so they have a particular position, as do I. They, at least, avoid lying, but everybody knows where they stand--having a concept of a society that's a civic, antinationalist society where each citizen is a citizen, that it's less important what your ethnicity is than the fact of your participation in society.

MT: You once told me you thought of journalism as perishable because we use it and then throw it away, and that literature was less so. In literature you could create these containers of memory in a way that journalism just can't.

AH: The means of production are different. I write a column on Tuesday and then I ship it off. It's not edited much. I don't prepare it for months. It's published and then it lasts for a week, and then a new issue comes out and it's gone. So it's perishable. It's also more immediate. I publish it on Thursday. On Friday my readers send me e-mail and say "That was good" or "You're stupid," whereas it takes a while to write a book. Then it takes a year to publish it and reach your readers.

It's also that journalism talks about different things. If I wrote a column about politics today, even if it wasn't published and thrown away by the next week, it would be irrelevant in a month. I like that about journalism. It's an immediate reaction to something that is happening, and then you get an immediate reaction. It's an immediate exchange whereas literature lasts longer. Art, ideally, creates sovereign beauty and then it exists beyond you and beyond the time. This is the inherent promise of literature.

There are a lot of columns that are really on the verge of literature since they are stories of people. The other difference is that I don't make up those things. I write about people that I've met.

MT: As a writer in this time I assume you have some sense of obligation--now I'm talking more about your literature--to record things, to tell things?

AH: Technically it's recording, but whatever happens today might or might not find a way into my book ten years from now. Literature should not react immediately to the political situation. It's sort of wasting it because, first of all, it doesn't do that well. Secondly, everybody is a citizen at the same time. I'm pissed as a citizen and I want to react as a citizen immediately, which also includes writing journalistic stuff.

MT: But I'm saying something else. When you write a book like The Question of Bruno or a book like Nowhere Man you are talking about politics.

AH: Yes, but I didn't do it because it was my duty, even if I felt it was my duty at the time. Writers should not be burdened by duty. Also, literature simply cannot address politics in any meaningful way.

It's also that you don't know how it is going to turn out. Out of 50,000 books published this year, you don't really know which one is going to catch this time best because you cannot see clearly from the inside unless you luck out and have some sort of visionary sense or you simply are doing it without knowing that you are doing it. To know what this time is you have to be outside of it, and if you can write about it inside, it's a crapshoot.

MT: In September you received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." How is being a MacArthur fellow going to help what you do?

AH: I don't have to worry about things that I have been worried about. It will give me more time and peace of mind to work on things that I want to work on. It's also liberating in the sense that I have been rewarded for what I have been doing, which some people might have thought to be weird and strange and unprofitable. So my little experiments in strange forms and confusing chapters and all that worked out for me--all the more reason to be doing them. And even if I don't, it will be by choice.

MT: So it buys a measure of comfort and liberates you?

AH: It buys autonomous space, as it were, which is particularly important. I don't have to make compromises for financial reasons or reasons of acceptance. I make my choices. So tomorrow I'm going to Oklahoma [to judge a fiction-writing contest] and, as anthropologically interesting as that might be, next year I'm not going to Oklahoma 'cause I don't have to [laughs].

People have different sensibilities. My sensibility is to stick to this place, this woman, these friends, what I do, this soccer team. I don't change my life overnight. I have never dreamed about a different life. Even my life here has really worked out. What I want is a continuation of my life in Sarajevo--to be writing, to feel at home in the city, so this is what I'm planning instead of inventing myself all over again. What I've worked for is to be the same person I was before I got here.

I'm 40. If I were 25 that would be an issue. I know who I am. I know everything about my life. I know who my friends are. I like people and I like talking with them. I like moving around the city. I don't need privacy and solitude. I don't want to move to a house with big walls. If I am pressured, I will withdraw, but right now I have no desire or inclination to withdraw. I like being in public. I'm comfortable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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